Dualism and missions

Transforming Worldviews book coverLast time I noted some thoughts from Paul Hiebert’s Transforming Worldviews about the dualism that grew up in Western culture over the last few centuries, the separation between religious and secular life.

Hiebert also noted the effect this had on missions:

In missions this dualism has led to a division between “evangelism” and “social gospel,” reinforcing the dualism that led to the secularization of modern societies. For many people, evangelism concerns the super salvation of the soul, and the social gospel involves ministry to human physical needs, such as food, medicine, and education. Missionaries planted churches and built schools and hospitals. They saw their task as Christianizing and civilizing people. The two endeavors were often seen as separate tasks. (Kindle location 3164)

As Hiebert noted, when societies rejected Christianity but accepted the social aspects, modern missions became one of the world’s great secularizing forces. He also notes:

Modern dualism also led many missionaries to deny the reality of spirits, magic, witchcraft, divination, and evil eye, which were important in the everyday life of the people they served. Young Christians in these communities kept their beliefs in these this-worldly spiritual realities but hid them from the missionaries because the missionaries did not believe in such phenomena. The result was “split-level” Christianity in which young Christians were Christian in public, going to church and reciting the confessions on Sunday, but were traditional religionists in private, turning to magicians, diviners, and shamans during the week. (Kindle location 3173)

So what happened in many places was a superficial acceptance of Christianity, a wholesale acceptance of Western social structures, and an underlying continuance of traditional beliefs. In order to get the schools and hospitals, they were willing to perform Christian rituals, but their hearts remained unchanged.

By not changing underlying worldviews (including their own), missionaries failed to actually convert those they dealt with.

Obviously, Hiebert is painting with a broad stroke. Exceptions abound. But in far too many places, this is exactly what took place.


Message StonesI have a dream. I’m looking forward to the day when churches argue and fight about things that really matter. Okay, maybe I don’t really want the arguing and fighting part. Still, I’d love to see a large portion of our membership get passionate about things that happen outside of our church walls.

I long for the day when someone writing about feeding the hungry can generate as much attention as someone arguing about what women can and can’t do in the assembly. I’d love to see members competing to get more attention for their style of evangelism, rather than their style of music. Wouldn’t it be neat to hear someone say, “We liked that church, but they didn’t seem to be focused enough on missions, so we’re going elsewhere”?

I’d like churches to be measured not by the number of people in the pews on Sunday but the number of people on their knees on Monday. I’d love for faithfulness to be seen as growing to be more like Christ, not just attending church every time the doors are open. I dream of the day when we care less about who stands up front and more about who washes feet.

Yet, just as God told Elijah of the unknown thousands who weren’t worshipping Baal, I know that God has an army of people out there that aren’t writing blogs or speaking at lectureships or promoting the doctrine du jour. Those people are too busy going about their ministries, too busy serving, too busy changing this world to get bogged down in our silly squabbles. God bless them. May their tribe be increased.

Photo by Darren Hester on MorgueFile.com

No real good without the good news

idolOn Friday, I posted a link to Evil Spirits and Electricity Problems. In that article, missionary Amy Medina tells a story of political corruption in Tanzania. Medina points out that this case of corruption doesn’t just represent a personal failing on the part of a politician; it demonstrates the effects of an animistic worldview.

Here’s a quote:

In Africa, animism is the predominant worldview. Even among many who claim to be Christian or Muslim.

Animism is the belief system that the world is governed by capricious, irrational spirit beings. They are unpredictable and usually mean. There is no rhyme or reason to what they do. You cannot control them and there is very little point in trying.

Thus, many Africans believe:
We are poor and will always be poor.
Why try to change it?
There is nothing we can do.
We are trapped in poverty.

Those who are in power–the chiefs, the government officials, even many times the pastors–they are higher in the spiritual hierarchy. If you mess with them, you mess with the spirits. If you mess with them, you’re bringing a heck of a lot of trouble on yourself.

She then goes on to say something that needs to be heard, that needs to be repeated, that desperately needs to be understood as we think about missions:

This is why Africa does not need more government aid. This is why Africa does not simply need more wells or more shoes or more schools.

Until the underlying worldview is addressed, there will not be change in Africa. This is why Africa needs the gospel to penetrate its worldview.

Doing good doesn’t do longterm good unless it includes the gospel! Not the idea that all people need is some sort of “get out of hell free” card, but the idea that the good news of Jesus transforms lives, worldviews, and cultures. If we aren’t changing worldviews, we aren’t changing anything. We aren’t helping people, not really. We’re not doing lasting good.

Feed the hungry. House the homeless. Clothe the naked. But give them the good news they need to truly change their lives!

photo by Kevin Connors on MorgueFile.com

What people in other countries need (and what we think they need)

file0002132358706Last week I wrote a post showing similarities between Undercover Boss and short-term mission trips. I want to follow that up with some comments about how we go about determining what people in other countries need.

When we see people in developing nations that lack so many things that we consider essential, we are moved to help. That compassion is a good thing, but it needs a bit of discernment along with it. Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert have done much work in this area; they have a website (and book) called When Helping Hurts. I won’t pretend to address this topic in the depth that they do, but I do want to share some personal observations.

First, a couple of examples that I’ve mentioned before. One I saw in the church in Córdoba, Argentina, where I used to live. The church has done an excellent job over the last few years of updating their worship space, creating a lovely setting for meeting together. The preacher is quite technologically adept and has begun using a projector on a regular basis. I went to visit and saw that they were projecting on a tiny screen, something like 3×4. This was puzzling to me, since the wall they were projecting toward was white and perfectly flat. It was a perfect space for projections. “Why are you using that screen instead of just projecting on the wall?,” I asked. The answer: “Some Americans gave us this screen, and we thought we should honor their gift by using it.”

The other story was one that was told me in Cuba a few years ago:

“We were quite happy, everyone providing their own cup for the Lord’s Supper. Then a brother from the States brought us communion trays, without asking. Now we have to find ways to get cups from the States.”

Sometimes, when we go to other countries, we create a need that they didn’t have before. I saw the newsletter of someone who had been to Cuba. He had a list of things “the Cubans are asking for.” It was a strange list, bearing little relation to what I’d heard from the mouths of Cubans. I asked the man, and he said, “I asked them if they wanted some baptismal garments. They said yes.” Same with sewing machines and little audio devices to listen to the Bible. That’s how he came up with his list of things “they were asking for.”

In a similar way, I was at a conference in Alabama where Ammiel Perez, preacher from Havana, was present. One brother showed him some solar-powered devices with teaching materials recorded on them. The devices cost $500 each. The man asked Ammiel if they would be useful in Cuba, and Ammiel said sure. Later I asked Ammiel, “If someone has $5000 to help the church in Cuba, do you want them buying 10 of those devices?” Ammiel said, “No way! We have much bigger needs.”

One principle that we need to keep in mind is the principle of relative deprivation. It’s the idea of wanting something because others have it. You don’t feel the need unless you see that others have something you don’t. My uncle talked about growing up poor. He said, “All we had to eat was beans and cornbread. But everyone around us was eating beans and cornbread, so we didn’t know we were poor.”

When we go to another country with our new smartphone and ask someone in that country if they’d like one, they’re probably going to say yes. Now they’re hoping to get a smartphone, where they might not have seen one before. (That may be a bad example. One friend in Cuba who is a tour guide told us about a condescending tourist who pulled an old cellphone out of her pocket and asked, “Do you even know what this is?” My friend’s colleague whipped out his smartphone and said, “Well THIS is a telephone… I’m not sure what that piece of junk is.”)

But if you ask someone, “Do you need one of these?”, they’re probably going to say yes, even if they don’t really need it. Just don’t go around saying, “Our brothers are asking for these.”

Years ago, the U.S. government established the Alliance for Progress to work with Latin America. In Spanish, that’s “La Alianza Para El Progreso.” It makes for a funny play on words, because “para” can also be a form of the verb to stop. That makes it “The Alliance Stops Progress.” Many Latin Americans felt that’s exactly what happened. While they were trying to keep children from dying from diarrhea, their hospitals received advanced cancer treatment machines costing tens of thousands of dollars. Millions of dollars of aid came in, but little was in the form that was really needed.

Have a heart to help. But have ears to listen and eyes to see. Go and be a learner. See what they’re real needs are before making your shopping list and writing your appeal letters. You might be surprised.

One closing thought. Tony Fernández in Cuba often repeats something he told me the first time I went: “What we really need in Cuba isn’t money. Our greatest need is understanding.”

Image courtesy of MorgueFile.com

How missions trips are like Undercover Boss

Money in handI like the show Undercover Boss. If you haven’t seen it, it’s a “reality” show based on an executive in a company assuming a disguise and going to work at different jobs within the company. At the end of the show, the boss reveals himself to the people he’s been working with. In most cases, the boss gives impressive gifts and bonuses to the employees in a tear-jerking finale.

In almost every episode, the boss is overwhelmed by the people he meets. They seem like the best workers (or the worst, in rare exceptions). Their needs seem greater, their stories more dramatic. They’ve overcome obstacles and challenges to loyally serve the company.

And you ask yourself: why these employees? Aren’t there hundreds of others with similar stories? Greater needs? More outstanding work? The boss changes the lives of a few that he meets in the course of this show.

Mission trips are a bit like that. We go, and we’re overwhelmed by what we see. The Christians in the other place must be the hardest working Christians on earth. Their work must be the most challenging, yet most rewarding. Their needs are great, yet we can often step in and meet those needs.

And others say: why them? Why that place? Why that need and not this other one?

This is really meant as more observation than criticism. Go. See the works. See the needs. Help where you can. But recognize that what you are seeing is part of God’s work in this world, not the sum of it. Don’t come home telling everyone that all mission funds should go to Mongolia or Ushuaia or Tasmania. Don’t imply that your trip was so much more important than that of someone else.

Don’t try and be the Undercover Boss.

Image courtesy of MorgueFile.com